Sunday, January 22, 2012

Why I Adore Evolution

I love – I adore -- reading about evolution because it is a beautiful, unifying theory that satisfies my broad interests and I think it has the potential to answer almost all the most interesting questions.  My keen interest in evolution began shortly after I was shaken from a happy agnosticism by Sam Harris’ The End of Faith and A Letter to a Christian Nation.  Losing what faith I had made me look a little deeper for answers.  I'll mention that I was hardly pious to begin with -- I was raised in the liberal Quaker tradition where a certain amount of mysticism is tolerated, but not exactly celebrated.  Science is generally on solid footing among liberal Quakers, and I think my parents both having advanced degrees and and both are avid environmentalists didn’t hurt me either.  No, I would not have been a good fundamentalist.  I was the only kid who borrowed Tom Paine’s The Age of Reason from my junior high school library, probably, ever. 

My favorite authors now are Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Matt Ridley, Steve Pinker, and Nick Lane. I love books by Robert Wright, Barbara Oakley, R.M Neese & G.C. Williams, Darrel Ray, Jared Diamond, and others. When I read I always have a pen in hand so I can make the books mine with margin notes and marks, so the second reading a pure breeze.  

I admit that I am obsessed with evolution. Why do I find it so captivating?

When I studied geography at the University of Washington I focused on population and culture, and in my dissertation I merged a background in communication with geography and looked at the fidelity of information which drew up new Mexican immigrants for the agricultural labor pool in eastern Washington state.  Most of these were friends and family of workers who had come earlier and their main source of information was interpersonal.  My hypothesis was that the advantages of attracting friends would be so great that some would exaggerate the benefits of coming.  Employers too had a vested interest in expanding the workforce, I reasoned.  The effect, I predicted, would be a degree of disillusionment among the new arrivals. This was borne out quite well in many of my results.

There are two reasons I mention that story, the first is that I am naturally drawn to a disciplines that are broad and encompassing.  Geography, the study of space and location, draws in human, cultural, and physical systems -- all of which interact in space.  It is as broad a discipline as they come; it’s like history but it focuses on the spatial, not the temporal dimension.  Everything happens in time, everything happens in space. 

Evolution is also all-encompassing. But across both space and time. 

What fields are essential to the evolutionist?  It would be easier to list those that are not.  Let’s start with the most obvious: Biology.   I became immersed in microbiology and biochemistry with the work of Nick Lane (Power, Sex and Suicide and Life Ascending), Matt Ridley (The Genome, and The Red Queen).  Richard Dawkins, in The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phoenotype argued convincingly (to me) that natural selection does not happen amongst species or even organisms.  It happens at the level of the gene – the replicator, to use his term.  Interestingly, this was not the position of my biology professor in the graduate class on evolutionary biology which I recently completed.  Neither he nor I could budge.

Dawkins’ other books, such as Climbing Mount Improbable, The Blind Watchmaker, The Greatest Story Ever Told, and The Ancestor’s Tale all celebrate the genius of evolutionary solutions.  These are fun and entertaining, and quite detailed.  In Unweaving the Rainbow he explores the beauty and aesthetics of evolution.

Dawkins is best known for another book, The God Delusion, in which he takes a harder stance against religion than Harris did.   Dawkins, Harris, Dan Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens have been called the four riders of new atheism.  So I read The God Delusion, and Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, and Hitchens’ acidic God is Not Great and The Atheist Handbook.  Just about any one of these would have been enough to do in supernatural beliefs as weak as mine had been.  Even with the recommended antidote (by a Catholic friend) of The Twilight of Atheism (Alister McGrath), and John F. Haught's God and the New Atheism, all spirituality, mysticism, religious faith, and supernatural belief of any kind simply fell away.  So my reading has taken me into theology too, and in the process I reread much of the Bible and some other religious texts from a new and more cynical perspective.

One of my concerns about losing religion was the question of morality.  If there is no higher power – or even a widely accepted illusion of one – what would that mean for human behavior?  Here’s where Pinker’s Better Angels was most satisfying, but throughout my reading I have found many studies pointing out (with game theory and otherwise) that there is much to be admired in human nature.  And, as I have written previously, I am less impressed by the morality in scripture than I am by mankind’s inclination to skip over the bad parts.  Good books specifically on the topic of morality include Better Angels, Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist and The Origins of Virtue, The Ethical Brain by Michael Gazzaniga, and Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape.

Then there is the practical and interesting treatment of health and medicine.  What I read in Nick Lane’s Power Sex and Suicide, as well as in Life Ascending, about autophagy --  the mitochondria program, when it goes wonky, for triggering it's own demise and consumption so that it stops producing free radicals -- caused me to drop 20 pounds.  I also take a baby aspirin daily, to take advantage of this corrective code and live healthy a bit longer.  I've read since that exercise can do the same as a near starvation diet, prolonging life for the same reasons.  Why We Get Sick, by R.M Neese and G.C. Williams, is also about evolution in medicine and illness. The Emperor of All Maladies, by Siddhartha Mukherjee, traces the evolution of medical science as much as it does for cancer.

Another knowledge patch that has blossomed in my garden is evolutionary psychology, kicked off for me by Robert Wright’s exquisite The Moral Animal, but started really by Robert Trivers’ brilliant Social Evolution which I read retrospectively.  Wright introduces the reader to key ideas in evolutionary psychology, using Darwin’s own life for examples.  Steven Pinker, who writes very long and somewhat dense page-turners, explored the physiological influences of brain neurology in The Blank Slate, The Stuff of Thought, and How the Mind Works.  He argues, convincingly, that much or most of our personality is inherited.  Each of these books is well worth reading several times.  His latest book on the decline of violence (The Better Angels of our Nature) may top them all in its scope, importance, and depth of insight.  The Language Instinct took me for the first time into the field of Linguistics, and I loved it there.

The Selfish Gene, which I said was a pivotal book for me, also introduced the term "meme," which is Dawkins’ gene-like word for "concept."  His point was that because ideas duplicate, duplicate imperfectly, and have an impact in the real world, they too are subjected to natural selection.  Salient ideas propagate from mind to mind.  When ideas join in teams they look something more like an organism, we might call them a theory.  When they join in larger coalitions they become an ideology or a paradigm.  That memes are not alive does not matter – genes aren’t viable organisms either.  The analogy of viruses is better than that of genes, though.  And for transmission think of contagion rather than meiosis and DNA.  This comparison to epidemiology is made very well in Darrel Ray's excellent book The God Virus.

I had read Trivers’ original text, The Diversity of Life by E.O. Wilson, and some other early writers, but eventually I had to sit down with Darwin himself.  I’d put it off because, after all, that was 160 years ago and surely his writing style would be affected.  I thought that – brilliant as he was – reading him directly would be a bit of a chore.  But what a nice surprise!  In The Origin of Species (which does get slow at times) you see an extraordinary naturalist working out the details of a theory which he had kept secret for 20 years.  Even though it was full of apology and qualification, this book was an atomic bomb, fully packed.  In the anthropological The Descent of Man he turns the same focus and attention on human origins with great insight and few of the mistakes you might expect.  But most, I enjoyed The Voyage of the Beagle, an adventure tale on the order of Herge's Tintin.  It is an extraordinary account, beautifully written, not only of the natural wonders but also of the people he encountered on his 3-year voyage.  He was barely 20.  What a tale!  Hungry for more of that, I found The Species Seekers which is about Darwin, Wallace, Hooker, and Huxley, and also Iain McCalman’s Darwin’s Armada, about the orchestrated release of the aforementioned bombshell on a scientific and theological community which they expected to be hostile.  It did not disappoint in that regard, but it yielded, in the end.  Well.  In most of the world, it yielded.  Not so much in America, where belief in evolution is bafflingly low.

The geographic implications of evolution are so clear throughout most of these books that they hardly require mentioning.  Here Be Dragons by Dennis McCarthy was one of the more direct treatments of biogeography, and there are excellent texts by that name.  Every ecosystem has geographic extent which may or may not be porous and possibly vulnerable to invasion.  The succession of species on a fixed landscape is evolution in action.  Isolation (whether by obstruction or by distance) can create species, and most remarkably sometimes create a ring species, where a population varies gradually in a circular pattern (e.g., at a parallel around the north pole)  until the two ends meet only to find themselves different species at the junction, unable to breed – but just a series of subtle variations in the other direction. 

Different climates and resources influence evolutionary change and, as Diamond argues in Guns Germs, and Steel, these have often spread within a climate zone in an east-west pattern.  There is also the interesting methods of propagation that have unique spatial implications.  Some seeds catch the wind, some hitchhike, such as burrs or pollen, some get themselves eaten and excreted, some float, some cling to floating debris.  Others roll, explode, and many have several strategies -- like the Asian Longhorn Beetle in Chicago recently, which flew short distances but were carried long distances, with firewood.  Each of these results in an interesting pattern.  Diseases too spread in spatial patterns, as John Snow first mapped but which is now done as a matter of course.  There is no end when you meld evolution and biogeography.  If there ever was a fertile marriage, that is it.

Then there are memes, which also have their spatial patterns -- like those I examined in my own dissertation.  Ridley in The Rational Optimist, Pinker in Better Angels, and Diamond in Guns Germs and Steel show how powerful a force information can be in directing and forcing social change, and how specific the direction of flow can be.   As Matt Ridley puts it, as information becomes more available – through language, the printing press, the internet, social media -- more ideas can have sex. Specialization, trade, positive sum games, and democracy can result.

So why do I love evolution?  Because I love life.  I love it.  Now that I realize that I’ll enjoy, at best, just a few more decades, I love every single minute of it, all the more. 

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful. Not much Huxley? :*(

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